What I Wish I Knew Before Getting My First STI
Like most teenagers, my high school health class instilled the fear of God in me. They taught me that if I had unprotected sex, I’d get an STI — although, back in my day, they called them STDs. (Changing the “D” [Disease] to the “I” [Infection] has honestly been great for helping destigmatizing sexually transmitted things. Besides, it’s more accurate. Getting gonorrhea isn’t a disease, it’s a bacterial infection. Getting HIV isn’t a disease, it’s a virus.)
My high school also showed genital pictures of the men and women who had common STIs. These pics were f*cking disgusting. There’s no other way to put it. They’re also not that realistic. In order to get the point where say, gonorrhea, looks like that, you must have gone a hell of a long time not seeing a doctor after having some clear symptoms.
Still, after high school, I had a huge fear of contracting any STI, and thought that if I did, it would be the end of the world. I’d be a disgusting social outcast and no one would ever want to sleep with me ever again. Boy, was I wrong.
It’s a shame that schools use unhealthy scare tactics to get people to wear condoms. It doesn’t really work that well, and then people, like myself, just begin to fear sex in general, not just STIs. This obviously has a negative impact on our sex lives.
Since I’ve been on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill that decreases the likelihood of acquiring HIV through sex by over 99%, my condom use has been sparse, and I’ve contracted a few bacterial STIs.
Here’s what I wish I had known before contracting my first STI.
1. It’s totally not the end of the world.
I just want to say this point blank: getting an STI isn’t that big of a deal. Most of the common STIs like syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. Even HIV, which used to be a death sentence, isn’t anymore. If fact, with modern antiretroviral medications, people living with HIV can have normal, healthy, and fulfilling lives. Also, with treatment, you can reach an undetectable viral load. Once you reach an undetectable viral load — meaning levels of HIV in the blood are below the threshold of detection —you are unable to transmit HIV to your partners. This is often summarized with the phrase Undetectable = Untransmittable or U = U.
2. When symptoms arise, the best thing to do is go to a sexual health clinic to get tested and treated.
Most major cities in the United States will have at least one free clinic (Planned Parenthood is always great if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby). These clinics aren’t just free (or very inexpensive), they tend to have healthcare professionals who won’t shame you or make you feel uncomfortable for getting an STI. If you go to urgent care, per se, you may run into some bad doctors who do shame you. (I know I have.)
3. Sexual partners may get angry after telling them you tested positive for an STI.
Not only will some partners get furious, a few may call you hurtful names. It’s happened to me. I’ve also had people never talk to me again after I told them. It sucks. There’s no question about it. It’s helpful to recognize that this has nothing to do with you, really. They’re just scared, believe all the stigma that comes with getting an STI, and are lashing out.
4. The only way to really get over your fear of getting an STI is to get an STI.
It’s kind of ridiculous, but I’ve realized that the way I got over my constant fear of getting an STI it to have one, and realize, Woah, this really isn’t that big of a deal. Now I’m not saying go out there and TRY to get an STI. Of course, you should use protection and have open conversations with your partners about STIs, but at the same time, if you do get one, you’ll wonder, “Why was I so worried about getting this for so many years? Why did I let it affect negatively affect my sex life?”
Zachary Zane is a Brooklyn-based writer, speaker, and activist whose work focuses on lifestyle, sexuality, culture, and entertainment. He was formerly the digital associate editor at OUT Magazine.His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Washington Post, Playboy, and more.